The first hypothesis is that, contra Elk (1972), all Brontosauruses were rather fat at one end, then much fatter in the middle, then thin at the other end.
The second theory is that Diplodocus was dumb. Evidence is here presented in the form of an important new life restoration by Matthew Taylor.
- Elk, Anne. 1972. Anne Elk’s Theory on Brontosauruses. Reprinted in: Chapman, G., Cleese, J., Gilliam, T., Idle, E., Jones, T. and Palin, M. (eds). Just the Words, Volume 2. Methuen, London, 118-120.
In a recent post I showed some photos of the mounted apatosaurine at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, AMNH 460, which Tschopp et al. (2015) regarded as an indeterminate apatosaurine pending further study.
A lot of museums whose collections and exhibits go back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries have scale model skeletons and sculptures that were used to guide exhibit design. I have always been fascinated by these models, partly because they’re windows into another era of scientific research and science communication, and partly because they’re just cool – basically the world’s best dinosaur toys – and I covet them. In my experience, it is very, very common to find these treasures of history buried in collections, stuck up on top of specimen cabinets, or otherwise relegated to some out-of-the-way corner where they won’t be in the way. I know that exhibit space is always limited, and these old models often reflect ideas about anatomy, posture, or behavior that we now know to be mistaken. But I am always secretly thrilled when I see these old models still on exhibit.
The AMNH has a bunch of these things, because Henry Fairfield Osborn was crazy about ’em. He not only used 2D skeletal reconstructions and 3D model skeletons to guide exhibit design, he published on them – see for example his 1898 paper on models of extinct vertebrates, his 1913 paper on skeleton reconstructions of Tyrannosaurus, and his 1919 paper with Charles Mook on reconstructing Camarasaurus. That genre of scientific paper seems to have disappeared. I wonder if the time is right for a resurgence.
So in a glass case at the feet of AMNH 460 is a model – I’d guess about 1/12 or 1/15 scale – of that very skeleton. You can tell that it’s a model of that particular skeleton and not just some average apatosaur by looking carefully at the vertebrae. Apatosaurines weren’t all stamped from quite the same mold and the individual peculiarities of AMNH 460 are captured in the model. It’s an amazing piece of work.
The only bad thing about it is that – like almost everything behind glass at the AMNH – it’s very difficult to photograph without getting a recursive hell of reflections. But at least it’s out where people can see and marvel at it.
Oh, and those are the cervical vertebrae of Barosaurus behind it – Mike and I spent more time trying to look and shoot past this model than we did looking at it. But that’s not the model’s fault, those Barosaurus cervicals are just ridiculously inaccessible.
So, memo to museums: at least some of us out here are nuts about your old dinosaur models, and where there’s room to put them on exhibit, they make us happy. They also give us views of the skeletons that we can’t get otherwise, so they serve a useful education and scientific purpose. More, please.
Osborn, H. F. (1898). Models of extinct vertebrates. Science, New Series, 7(192): 841-845.
Osborn, H.F. (1913). Tyrannosaurus, restoration and model of the skeleton. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History, 32: 91-92, plates 4-6.
Osborn, H. F., & Mook, C. C. (1919). Characters and restoration of the sauropod genus Camarasaurus Cope. From type material in the Cope Collection in the American Museum of Natural History. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 58(6): 386-396.
Apatosaurines on the brain right now.
I’ve been thinking about the question raised by Jerry Alpern, a volunteer tour guide at the AMNH, regarding the recent Tschopp et al. (2015) diplodocid phylogeny. Namely, if AMNH 460 is now an indeterminate apatosaurine, pending further study, what should the museum and its docents tell the public about it?
Geez, Apatosaurus, it’s not like we’re married!
I think it’s a genuinely hard problem because scientific and lay perspectives on facts and hypotheses often differ. If I say, “This animal is Apatosaurus“, that’s a fact if I’m talking about YPM 1860, the genoholotype of Apatosaurus ajax; it would continue to be a fact even if Apatosaurus was sunk into another genus (as Brontosaurus was for so long). We might call that specimen something else, but there would always be a footnote pointing out that it was still the holotype of A. ajax, even if the A. part was at least temporarily defunct – the scientific equivalent of a maiden name.* For every other specimen in the world, the statement, “This animal is Apatosaurus” is a hypothesis about relatedness, subject to further revision.
* This is going to sound kinda horrible, but when one partner in a marriage takes the other’s surname, that’s a nomenclatural hypothesis about the future of the relationship.
Things that look fairly solid and unchanging from a distance – specifically, from the perspective of the public – often (always?) turn out to be fairly fuzzy or even arbitrary upon closer inspection. Like what is Apatosaurus (beyond the holotype, I mean) – or indeed, what is a planet.** There is no absolute truth to quest for here, only categories and hypotheses that scientists have made up so that we can have constructive conversations about the crazy spectrum of possibilities that nature presents us. We try to ground those categories and hypotheses in evidence, but there will always be edge cases, and words will always break down if you push them too hard. Those of us who work on the ragged frontier of science tend to be fairly comfortable with these inescapable uncertainties, but I can understand why people might get frustrated when they just want to know what the damned dinosaur is called.
** Triton, the largest body orbiting Neptune, is almost certainly a captured Kuiper Belt object, and it’s bigger than Pluto. Moon or planet? Probably best to say a former dwarf planet currently operating as a satellite of Neptune – but that’s a mouthful (and a mindful, if you stop to think about it), not a short, convenient, easily-digestible label. Any short label is going to omit important information. This is related to the problem of paper title length – below some threshold, making something shorter means making it incomplete.
What I would say
I suppose the short version that is most faithful to the Tschopp et al. results is:
This skeleton (AMNH 460) might be Apatosaurus or Brontosaurus or a third, new thing – scientists aren’t sure yet.
A reasonable follow-up sentence – and an answer to the inevitable “Why not?” – would be:
They have to look at 477 anatomical details for lots of skeletons and weigh all the evidence, and that takes time.
Personally, if I was talking to museum visitors I would lean in conspiratorially and say:
If you want to call it Apatosaurus or Brontosaurus, go ahead – those are both ‘live’ hypotheses, and even the world’s experts on this problem can’t tell you that you’re guessing the wrong way – at least not yet.
And if there was a kid in the group, I’d add:
Maybe you’ll be the one to figure it out!
What would you say?
P.S. I wouldn’t change the signage. It could still turn out to be Apatosaurus, and the Tschopp et al. results do not lend themselves to easy label-ification.
P.P.S. With some modification for taxonomy, all of this applies to the Field Museum diplodocid FMNH P25112 as well.
April 27, 2015
A couple of weekends ago, London and I went camping and stargazing at Afton Canyon, a nice dark spot about 40 miles east of Barstow. On the way home, we took the exit off I-15 at Ghost Town Road, initially because we wanted to visit the old Calico Ghost Town. But then we saw big metal dinosaurs south of the highway, and that’s how we came to Peggy Sue’s Diner and in particular the Diner-saur Park.
The Diner-saur Park is out behind the diner and admission is free. There are pools with red-eared sliders, paved walkways, grass, trees, a small gift shop, and dinosaurs. Here’s a Spinosaurus – curiously popular in the Mojave Desert, those spinosaurs.
Ornithischians are represented by two stegosaurs, this big metal one and a smaller concrete one under a tree.
The turtles are entertaining. They paddle around placidly and crawl out to bask on the banks of the pools, and on little islands in the centers.
The gift shop is tiny and the selection of paleo paraphernalia is not going to blow away any hard-core dinophiles. But it is not without its charm. And, hey, when you find a dinosaur gift shop in the middle of nowhere, you don’t quibble about size. London got some little plastic turtles and I got some cheap and horribly inaccurate plastic dinosaur skeletons to make a NecroDinoMechaLaser Squad for our Dinosaur Island D&D campaign.
Now, about that sauropod. The identification sign on the side of the gift shop notwithstanding, this is not a Brachiosaurus. With the short forelimbs and big back end, this is clearly a diplodocid. The neck is too skinny for Apatosaurus or the newly-resurrected Brontosaurus, and too long for Diplodocus. I lean toward Barosaurus, although I noticed in going back through these photos that with the mostly-straight, roughly-45-degree-angle neck, it is doing a good impression of the Supersaurus from my 2012 dinosaur nerve paper. Compare this:
If I had noticed it sooner, I would have maneuvered for a better, more comparable shot.
Guess I’ll just have to go back.
Today is a good day for sauropod science. Since we’re not getting this up until the afternoon, you’ve probably already seen that Emanuel Tschopp and colleagues have published a monstrous specimen-level phylogenetic analysis of Diplodocidae and, among other things, resurrected Brontosaurus as a valid genus. The paper is in PeerJ so you can read it for free (here).
I’ve already been pinged by lots of folks asking for my thoughts on this. I know that the return of Brontosaurus is what’s going to catapult this paper into the spotlight, but I hope what everyone takes away from it is just what a thorough piece of work it is. I’ve never seen so many phylogenetic characters illustrated so well. It sets a new standard, and anyone who wants to overturn this had better roll up their sleeves and bring a boatload of data. I’m also very, very happy that it’s open-access so everyone in the world can see it, use it, question it, tear it apart or build on it. Getting Brontosaurus back is just gravy. Although, being pro-brontosaur enough to have named a dinosaur in honor of Brontosaurus, I’m also pretty happy about that. If you need a quick guide to who’s who now, A. ajax and A. louisae are still Apatosaurus, and B. excelsus, B. yahnahpin (formerly Eobrontosaurus), and B. parvus (originally Elosaurus) are all Brontosaurus. For more details, go read the paper.
My personal feelings aside, a lot of people are asking how solid is this generic re-separation. I haven’t read the entire paper yet – it’s 299 pages long, for crying out loud – but the separation of Brontosaurus and Apatosaurus seems solid enough. Tschopp et al. didn’t do it lightly, they justify their decision in detail. I don’t hold with the idea that just because two taxa are sisters, means that they cannot be separated generically. As usual in phylogenetic taxonomy, it comes down to what we decide as a community constitutes “diagnosably distinct”. Tschopp et al. have actually put some thought into what that might mean here, and whether you agree with them or not, they’ve at least made all of their evidence and reasoning explicit. That’s both an opportunity and a challenge for critics: an opportunity to pin down exactly where and why you may disagree, and a challenge to do exactly that. You can’t just sit back and say, “I think the analysis is flawed” or “I wouldn’t have coded that character that way” (well, you can, but if that’s all you say, no-one is obliged to take that kind of lazy, drive-by criticism seriously). There are 477 characters here, most of them illustrated, for 81 OTUs, and a lot of post-hoc discussion of the results. So whether you agree with the authors or not, in whole or in part, both fans and critics should dig in and build on this work. Is it the last word on diplodocid taxonomy? Of course not. But it does move the field forward significantly, and the Tschopp et al. should be applauded for that.
There’s a lot more in there than just bringing back Brontosaurus. “Diplodocus” hayi is elevated to its own genus, Galeamopus. Neither of those things are super surprising. There have been rumors since the 90s at least that Brontosaurus might be coming back, and everyone has known for a while that D. hayi was a bit wonky. I was also not surprised to see Australodocus returned to Diplodocidae – when I saw the type material in 2011, it looked diplodocid to me (based on some characters I’ll have to unpack in some other post). More surprising to me are the sinking of Dinheirosaurus into Supersaurus, the finding that Tornieria is not particularly close to Diplodocus, and the uncertain positions of AMNH 460, the American Museum mount, which is an indeterminate apatosaurine pending further study, of FMNH 25112, the Field Museum “Apatosaurus”, which might not even be an apatosaurine at all(!). In several cases, Tschopp et al. come right out and say that X is going to need further study, so if you want to work on sauropods and you’re stuck for project ideas, go see what needs doing.
As I was scanning the paper again while composing the last paragraph, I almost fell down the rabbit hole. So much interesting stuff in this paper. Even if all you care about is morphology, the hundred or so figures illustrating the phylogenetic characters ought to keep you happy for a very long time. I look forward to reading through the vertebral characters in detail and seeing what I’ve been missing all these years.
I’m contractually obliged to point out that the authors chose to publish the complete peer-review history of the paper, so you can see what the editor (Andy Farke) and reviewers had to say. As always, I think this transparency (and credit for the reviewers) is great for science, and I can’t wait until it’s the norm at more journals.
In addition to the paper, there’s also an interview with lead author Emanuel Tschopp on the PeerJ blog, and a nice shout-out for SV-POW!
Parting shot: why did Tschopp et al. get different results than anyone had previously? Because they used more specimens and more taxa – more data full stop. That’s also why their paper warrants serious consideration. It’s serious work. Let’s go stand on their shoulders.
In 2012, Matt and I spent a week in New York, mostly working at the AMNH on “Apatosaurus” minimus and a few other specimens that caught our eye. But we were able to spend a day at the Yale Peabody Museum up in New Haven, Connecticut, to check out the caudal pneumaticity in the mounted Apatosaurus (= “Brontosaurus“) excelsus, YPM 1980, and the bizarrely broad cervicals of the Barosaurus lentus holotype YPM 429.
While we there, it would have been churlish not to pay some attention to the glorious and justly famous Age of Reptiles mural, painted by Rudolph F. Zallinger from 1944-1947.
So here it is, with the Brontosaurus neck for scale:
Click through for high resolution (3552 × 2664).
And here is a close-up of the most important, charismatic, part of the mural:
Again, click through for high resolution (3552 × 2664).
That’s your lot for now. We’ve long promised a proper photo post of the Brontosaurus mount itself, and I’ll try to get that done soon. For now, it’s just scenery.
March 6, 2015
We have a new page on the sidebar – here – where we’re collecting as many museum abbreviations as possible, the idea being that you can copy and paste them into your papers to rapidly populate the ‘Museum Abbreviations’ section. I grabbed about 100 from my own previous papers and a handful of others, so currently the list is highly skewed toward museums with (1) sauropods (2) that I’ve had reason to yap about. I’ve probably missed tons of museums that are important for people working on hadrosaurs or stegosaurs or (shudder) mammals. From here on out the list will grow as people suggest additions and edits in the comments on that page. So please get on over there and contribute!
Completely unrelated eyeball-bait art courtesy of Brian Engh, who writes,
I don’t even remember drawing this, I just found it lying around and spruced it up a bit today. It’s supposed to be some kinda diplodocid, maybe Kaatedocus, but I think the main goal of the drawing was to draw one with a sense of weight that felt right given that their center of mass is supposed to be so far back. I like the idea of them getting startled and popping up every now and again… [see also–MJW]